First, slow MVP candidate James Harden.
Second, take on thorn in the side Evan Fournier.
In back-to-back games, Hawks rookie DeAndre Bembry has played a major defensive role in victories. The Hawks erased a 20-point deficit for a win over the Rockets on Thursday and led wire-to-wire for a win over the Magic Saturday.
“DeAndre is a special type of player,” Tim Hardaway Jr. said. “He doesn’t ask for much on the offense end. He takes pride on the defensive end. That’s what we love about him.”
Bembry is getting time as the fourth wing as Thabo Sefolosha has missed the past four games with a left groin injury. In the first game, the Hawks used fellow rookie Taurean Prince against the Knicks and the big frame of Carmelo Anthony. However, in the past three games, Bembry has gotten the call with a season-high 22 minutes against the Heat, 21 minutes against the Rockets and 22 minutes against the Magic.
Harden went for a game-high 41 points but he scored only six in the fourth quarter as the Hawks made their epic comeback. Bembry got much of the defensive assignment down the stretch playing all but the 14 seconds of the final period. Fournier, who has been a royal pain for the Hawks, finished with just nine points on 3 of 12 shooting.
“There is a big difference,” Bembry said of the recent matchups. “Fournier isn’t bad. He definitely knows how to score. Those are two guys who can get to their shots and make tough shots as well. Guarding James Harden, I don’t think it can get any better than that.”
Bembry scored 10 points against the Rockets. He didn’t score a point against the Magic. It didn’t matter. Defense gets you on the court.
Bembry said that’s how he played at St. Joseph’s his freshman season. It’s also where he forged his no-fear attitude.
“Going to St. Joseph’s, that’s how I started my freshman year,” Bembry said. “We made a trip to Italy and I played very aggressive defensively. That’s what got me on the court. I’ve been guarding the best player most of my life on the opponent’s end. I don’t expect it to change just because I made it to the NBA. I’m very confident defensively and offensively. Basically, not afraid of anyone.”
The Hawks selected Bembry with the 21st overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft, nine spots behind Prince. He has played sparingly on a team of veterans on the wing including Kent Bazemore, Sefolosha and Hardaway. He has made trips to the NBA Development League to get playing time. With the Hawks, Bembry is averaging 2.7 points and 1.6 rebounds in 9:39 over his 21 games.
“With Thabo still not able to go, he’s been our fourth wing,” coach Mike Budenholzer said. “(Saturday) it was Fournier. He has been a big, big problem for us. Starting (Bazemore) on him, that’s a luxury to have both Thabo and Baze as wing defenders. We’ve been just given Baze a good little start each quarter and then DeAndre came first tonight to guard Fournier. He did well. I think he is putting his focus on his defense and putting his focus on getting us stops and fueling our offense that way.”
Harden suckered Bembry into not one but two three-shot fouls. Bembry wasn’t the first to fall victim to Harden’s tactic. Paul Millsap also committed such an infraction. They won’t be the last. The important thing for the young player is that he learned from the mistakes. Harden didn’t get such a call in the decisive fourth quarter.
“Keep your hands away from him,” Bembry said of the lesson learned. “When he does it, he does a whole lot of wrapping and grabbing. The refs are going to give him that call. He got two three(-shot fouls) on me like that. You have to keep playing and that’s that I did.”
Teammates continue to speak highly of Bembry. In fact, after scoring 33 points against the Rockets, including 23 in the fourth quarter, Hardaway was asked what worked for the team in the final nine minutes. Perhaps the questioner was probing about Hardaway’s offensive prowess. That was not the answer.
“What was working was DeAndre Bembry,” Hardaway said. “You have to give him all the credit. A rookie, he was very special for us tonight. Taking the challenge of guarding possibly the MVP of the season. It’s a hard task. He stayed disciplined throughout the entire game, learned from his mistakes and didn’t make the mistakes when it was key in the game. You have to give him all the credit.”
As for Bembry’s response, he said simply “I wouldn’t say all the credit.”